A Greek challenge for 'Mr Europe' Juncker

Sat Jul 4, 2015 6:47am EDT
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By Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - It's sultry early July and an emotional Jean-Claude Juncker is on the stump, calling for a 'Yes' vote in a referendum on which he says hangs the future of Europe - and his own career.

"A 'Yes' ... would have a significance ... well beyond Europe," he tells voters. "We can show we're getting moving again, that the process of European unification goes on."

Only, the EU chief executive isn't addressing Greeks before Sunday's vote. This was 2005 and Juncker was addressing his fellow Luxemburgers. As their prime minister, he was pleading for support in a referendum he had called - with no legal need - to demonstrate popular backing for an EU constitution. He won, and went on to serve another eight years.

The risks he ran then - puzzling to many - illustrate the depth of Juncker's engagement to a Europe he this week called the "love of my life" and a highly personal, emotional approach to politics that marked his efforts to broker a deal for Greece.

From the moment Juncker grabbed Alexis Tsipras by the hand and led the novice Greek prime minister away for instruction on his first visit to Brussels, to the Commission president's talk this week of feeling "betrayed" by the leftist leader 20 years his junior, the personal touch has marked a roller-coaster five months of mediation between Athens and its euro zone creditors.

But an approach that one Juncker acquaintance said was based on generating a "personal vibe" in the negotiating room, did not always please Athens' biggest creditor, Germany, which feared he was giving Greeks false hopes of securing easier loan terms.

That highlights risks for Juncker in taking on the EU leaders who appointed him last year to run a Union facing a web of crises - Greece and the euro, British threats to quit, Russian aggression, migration from the bloc's poor, violent neighbors.


European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gives a statement while standing in front a giant Greek flag projected in the press room at the EU commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 29, 2015.  REUTERS/Yves Herman